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Benjie Beer gives his thoughts on Music Theatre Bristol’s adaption of Jerry Herman’s 1974 Mack and Mabel, a zero-to-hero tale set in the golden age of Hollywood.

Following the cancellation of their staging of Aida, Music Theatre Bristol have often found themselves in the headlines for the wrong reasons this year. Aside from simple political dispute, the controversy over Aida has perhaps hindered the society in more than one way, delaying the rehearsal process once a new spring show was finally chosen. Mack and Mabel is a musical that is flawed from the inside out.

Related content: ‘The Aida controversy: the full story’

Mack And Mabel was a just-success when it first hit the stage in 1974, and every revival since then has faired little better. Forty years ago, Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Walter Kerr saw acting talent that was being wasted on the stage—his criticisms resonate in MTB’s adaptation of Jerry Herman’s musical.

Credit must be given to director Lily Dyble and her team for taking on such an ambitious project, and really picking it up by its bootstraps—even if ultimately this is not the show it should be.

An adaptation of the real-life love affair of Mack Sennett, silent movie maker extraordinaire, and his adopted starlet Mabel Normand, Mack And Mabel follows the classic ‘rise and fall’ trope as Mack takes his girl from waitress to superstar before her inevitable destruction by uncontrolled sex and drug abuse.

However, the narrative never feels like anything more than a so-so copy of every other ‘zero to hero’ celebrity musical ever made. Unfortunately for MTB, this is something that would be difficult to escape, even following a radical overhaul of the original musical. The problems for Mack and Mabel lie at the root.

Mack And Mabel merits parries on the grounds of ambition, comedic, musical and acting flair

The problem is that this show is intrinsically uncertain of itself. It too often feels as if one is watching a cabaret rather than a musical; there are long, meandering dance sequences that are certainly enjoyable in themselves, but evidently are masking the fact that the plot does not appear to know what it is doing.

Any show that deploys tap sequences or Keystone Cop chase scenes that last more than ten minutes—without any real consequence or necessity—has got something to hide. In this case, it is a lack of a really compelling narrative.

This general sense of uncertainty is equally carried by the slightly half-hearted two-reeler movie aesthetic—such as in the black and white projection of Jazz Age-style movie scenes on the backdrop. This is a case in point: at times these are played while there is action onstage, in which case they do no more than split the audience’s attention—while at other times they are used when there are props and set frustratingly blocking the way.

It is a shame to see individual [actors] struggle against a musical that is fundamentally lacking

Despite some sterling performances, the acting fails to dispel this lingering confusion and feeling of falling short. James Stevens’s Mack cannot save the story. Mack’s lines tell the audience that he is a pathologically preoccupied man, consumed by his obsession for film, so much so that he stays allied to his ambitions rather than pursue Mabel.

However, Stevens at times does not live up to the billing; he seems awkward and mechanical, static and unemotional. Despite superb singing, he is just not believable.

It must be said that the best thing about this production, by some distance, is Grace Vance. Her confidence and assurance are in stark contrast to her surroundings; she wavers precisely between Mabel’s on-camera confidence and off-camera vulnerability, stealing the show in barnstorming numbers like ‘Look What Happened To Mabel’, and retreating into her skin when in the company of Nathan Sames’s salacious William Taylor.

many of the musical numbers are fabulous

She is an absolute, complete and total delight to watch. Mhairi Angus puts in a similarly excellent performance, as do Joe Kelly and Stan Ford as the nervous accountants, alongside Ned Costello as Frank the scriptwriter. It is a shame, then, to see these individuals struggle against a musical that is fundamentally lacking.

And it would be a mistake to say there is little to recommend the show. On the contrary, many of the musical numbers are fabulous—even if they are accompanied by very long, gratuitous dance sequences.

There are also some genuinely hilarious moments (a certain kiss between Keystone Cops being a crowd favourite). These things galvanise the show enough to make it an enjoyable night out despite the large and inescapable flaws.

Mack And Mabel merits parries on the grounds of ambition, comedic, musical and acting flair and, frankly, Grace Vance. It loses out for trying to fit in too much, for failing to get rid of scenes that are crying to be cut, and for its general lack of precision. It is a very hard task indeed to make this musical a winner and, in the case of MTB, this real success still eludes Mack and Mabel.

★★★

Mack and Mabel runs at the Winston Theatre until 1st April. Tickets are available here.


What were your thoughts on Mack and Mabel? Did you agree with our reviewer? Let us know in the comments below or on social media

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